'Tangerine' is Ripe and Raw

(USA, 89 min.)
Dir. Sean Baker, Writ. Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Starring: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, James Ransone, Mickey O’Hagen
Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine, a Video Services Corp release.
Photo courtesy of Video Services Corp.
Is there a film out right now more relevant than Tangerine? This drama is one of the sensations of this year’s Sundance Film Festival because it was shot entirely on an iPhone 5, but there’s so much more here than just a formal novelty. Tangerine is a force of life that shouts in a vibrant fluorescent glow of the streets of LA. The film doesn’t always work as the story and some supporting performances lag, but Tangerine is notable as a breakthrough in independent filmmaking. It’s even more important for the raw and authentic glimpse it gives into the trans community as director Sean Baker takes his phone to the streets and captures the lives of trans sex workers with bracing non-judgemental urgency. The film breaks barriers on several levels.

The iPhone element offers an immediate talking point as one approaches Tangerine wondering how it looks on the surface. From the perspective of a film fan who recently dismissed an iPhone movie for bringing nothing to the table for cinema, Tangerine suggests that personal devices could be the future of independent filmmaking so long as the film has the content to match the form. In truth, it resembles many other lo-fi/mumblecore indies that use a camera mostly for the functional element of recording. (If any technical element suffers, it’s the spotty sound, which is additionally muffled by an overbearing electro-pop score.) Some scenes look quite striking when Baker frames the scene just right, such as one gorgeous shot up the steps of a subway, although the grain of the iPhone works best for the artificial haze of the lights that colour the streets of LA and the guerilla style shooting that blurs the action of the film with the action of the streets. However, Baker and his co-DP Radium Cheng also take the rawness of the aesthetic as the vital pulse of the film. Tangerine looks like a movie of the streets: an urban art form in which anyone can tell their story in their own voice.

This immediacy rings clear when Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) meets up with her girl Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and learns that her pimp/boyfriend Chester (James Ransome aka Ziggy from The Wire) cheated on her during her month in the slammer. The film then takes to the streets and follows Sin-Dee as she hunts down Chester’s new squeeze—a girl with a real, legit vagina, to add insult to injury—and the intimate scope of the iPhone lens captures the pace of the streets with documentary-like realism as Sin-Dee uses her sass and charm (but more of the former) to track down the bitch who’s doing her man. Passersby and the genuine energy of the streets all creep into the frame of the camera phone, which takes better picture quality than regular iPhones do thanks to the Filmic Pro app and some Steadicam mounts, and the drama feels real and genuine with every step that Sin-Dee takes to track down Chester.

A parallel storyline mounts a hidden camera into the world of a cab drive named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) who lives a double life. He crawls around the street corners frequented by sex workers and looks to score, but his personal flavour isn’t for the wife and kids at home: it’s for going down on the trans-workers. Sin-Dee’s his personal favourite escape. Tangerine cuts back and forth from Sin-Dee’s story to Razmik’s (with Alexandra acting as a go-between for the two) as it creates parallel stories with a life lived in the open and a life lived in secret. The camera acts like a voyeur in Razmik’s thread and captures the world one doesn’t ordinarily see through a conventional lens. It contrasts sharply with the louder, more flamboyant narrative with Sin-Dee, and the disparity between the closed and open life is striking.

The two threads of the film, moreover, weave together a strong feat of self-representation for the LGBT community on film, especially the trans community as Rodriguez and Taylor play Sin-Dee and Alexandra with effortless sass and humour. (Taylor is especially good.) These girls have lots of spunk and there’s no denying that they bring an emotional honesty to their performances that’s been absent from other turns for trans characters in film. Tangerine comes to theatres on the cusp of one of the biggest moments of exposure for the trans community following the controversial talking point of Caitlyn Jenner and her Vanity Fair cover, but this authentic character study adds a necessary element for representation in film. Life isn’t like the cover of Annie Leibovitz shot: it’s unfiltered and unglamorous. The roughness of the film usually works to the film’s advantage as the ever-authentic Tangerine suggests that anyone has the power to tell their own stories in their own way.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Tangerine opens in Toronto on Friday, July 10 at The Carlton from VSC.
It screens in additional Canadian cities to follow, including the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal in July.

Update: Tangerine has its Ottawa premiere at The Mayfair Dec. 19.